Designing from Bones: Kitchen of Time

Welcome to my weekly series, Designing from Bones, where we use archaeology and the artifacts of human history to find and design stories. Join me today as we explore the history and benefits of an activity we all need and many enjoy, cooking.

Come in, my friends, and join me as we step through the misty portal for a look around the Kitchen of Time. From the salted salmon and insects of our distant past to food on a stick and Twecipes its all here, so grab a taste bud (or hide it if you are so inclined) and let’s take a virtual taste test of the history of cooking.

History of Cooking

Cooking set the stage for advancement

While scholars continue to debate the origins of cooking, it seems clear that one of our predecessors, Homo Erectus, was the first to cook. This belief is based on evidence included in a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by a pair of Harvard researchers, Zarin Machanda and Chris Organ.

Their study found that cooking has roots going back 1.9 million years. You see, our species, by weight, should be spending at least 48% of its time eating, chewing and digesting food (the after Thanksgiving nap-type of digestion where not much gets done). However, around 1.9 million years ago, Homo Erectus began spending just a tenth of that, or 4.7% of their time eating. A vast improvement over what all previous ancestors had been doing. This sudden freeing of time allowed Homo Erectus to hunt for higher quality foods, socially interact (origins of “hearth and home”) and begin to create tools that simplified life even more. Cooking is one of the ancient foundational keystones of modern society.

The advent of cooking provided our ancestors with a higher number of calories for their effort and produced some evolutionary changes in the species such as a smaller gut, larger brain and extended energy allowing for all the activities Homo Sapiens (modern humans) are able to do today.

Join me over at the serving table and we’ll take a brief look at some of the things our ancestors enjoyed over the years.

A Recipe for Success

The first recipes centered around the use of ice and natural salts (not the processed modern versions) to keep food fresh. As most cultures grew near water sources, seafood and fish were central to early diets. Added to this were abundant naturally occurring foods such as eggs, mushrooms and insects. Lightly-salted grasshopper, anyone? No? Perhaps a mushroom of unknown origin? Alright then, moving on.

Order up, Ancient Maya-style

Around 12,000 years ago our ancestors began cultivating crops which introduced grains and a wider range of fruits and vegetables to the human palate. The addition of grains led to flour, bread and soups making soup and a sandwich one of the first combination menu items in history.

Cooking was in full swing by Roman times with the addition of the word “cuisine” that included fried chicken, lobster, truffles and everyone’s favorite, cheesecake. The human love for food knows no bounds and our chef’s have spent millennium creating, perfecting and tinkering with recipes, combinations and methods.

Baba Budan the caffeinated smuggler

A favorite staple in many peoples diet, coffee, came on the scene around 800 A.D. when an Ethiopian goatherd noticed how frisky his goats became after eating the berries containing coffee beans and tried some himself. By 1000 A.D. the Arabians began roasting the beans and outlawed the export or sale of fertile beans outside their lands, keeping an effective monopoly on the caffeine craving world. Around 1600 A.D. an Indian smuggler named Baba Budan strapped a selection of fertile beans to his belly and carried them home. The seeds bore fruit making this ancient act of industrial sabotage the first step on the road that is responsible for the Starbucks craving public of the modern world. Many thanks to Baba Budan for his service.

Moving forward to modern times, Twecipes(dot)com began back in April of 2009, offering followers simple recipes for simple ingredients. Send a short ingredient list and they will Direct Message you back a recipe suggestion. Social media with tasty results.

Cooking up a story

Considering that cooking is at the root of human society and life it lends itself well to deepening any story. With such a broad selection of foods available, finding the one that works best in a scene becomes an important question.

What food makes your scene memorable?

Will our hero treat their love interest to a romantic dinner on the beach with hot dogs or fresh lobster dripping in rich butter? That all depends on the story, the personality of the characters and what we want to convey to our readers. Hot dogs can be romantic if shared by social elites that have acquired a down to Earth perspective as a part of their character arc. Fresh Lobster, on the other hand, can be a sign of romantic victory for a young couple that have struggled their way to a new success in life. What is your story trying to show?

There are stories associated with foods as well, such as the story of Baba Budan. Imagine risking state execution to smuggle out a handful of coffee beans. Or the secret recipe of an advanced beer. Perhaps a farming method that will increase the wheat yield in a starving country. All of these were industrial spy missions at one time in human history.

Conquerors throughout history understood that a lack of food by either side was a sure way to defeat or victory. If the enemy starves he is easy to defeat and control. Napoleon Bonaparte is credited with saying “An army moves on its stomach”. No food. No conquering invasion. No heroic defense.

One other consideration, especially for those writing historical fiction or fantasy, is what foods are or were available in your time era? If your story is placed in 13th century Italian settings then you cannot have your hero sit down to a heaping plate of risotto (a 15th century invention) but you can have them enjoying ravioli (which would be a new taste sensation).

Make your food choices fitting and realistic and your readers will find themselves drooling at the tasty sensations of your well-chosen prose.

Join me next Wednesday for another Designing from Bones when we will visit an ancient Mediterranean culture and see what its history has in store for us.

I am also guest posting over on Nicole Basaraba’s site today with a review of Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat. Stop on over and have a look.

If you’re interested in more great information and ideas on writing, check out my previous Designing from Bones entries found in “Categories” on my side bar.

Peaceful Journeys!

About Gene Lempp

Gene Lempp is a writer blending elements of alternate history, the paranormal, fantasy, science fiction and horror for dark and delicious fun. He unearths stories by digging into history, archeology, myth and fable in his Designing from Bones blog series. “Only the moment is eternal and in a moment, everything will change,” sums the heart of his philosophy. You can find Gene at his Blog, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, WANATribe, Google+, Pinterest and StumbleUpon.
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37 Responses to Designing from Bones: Kitchen of Time

  1. EllieAnn says:

    I think prehistoric cooking wouldn’t be too bad, salted fish, sautéed mushrooms….and grasshoppers aren’t too bad, they taste like chicken! 😉 Great post, Gene!

  2. Food can be such a revealing factor of everyone’s character, not just in terms of preference (think Kojak’s lollipops), but also in terms of social, health and monetary status. Describing the act of just eating with someone your characters don’t know very well can say so much about all the people involved. Think first date or business lunch or why your character would skip a meal. It’s a great way of imparting some (or a lot) of what you know about your characters to your readers.

    Another good one, Gene!

  3. Catie Rhodes says:

    Lesson from this post: If you’re writing a historical, know your food history. The short history on Italian pasta had me totally interested. I write about the part of Texas where I grew up. Food is very important there, and few people care if it’s artery clogging. I make a point to include food in my stories because it’s an important part of that culture. Now, if I were writing about a culture where all they did was pick at salads and drink lots of water, I’d have to rethink things. Thanks for presenting such interesting info, Gene. 😀

  4. Wow, thank you for the intriguing read! I enjoy cooking – especially in the fall season.

    In my novel I had to do some research on what my characters would have eaten during the time period. While I didn’t have them sitting around eating very much, I wanted to keep the authenticity there.

    Very much looking forward to reading your next post!


    • Gene Lempp says:

      John: Very true. Food can relate to every aspect of a story from economics to culture to personality. A rich man that loves spam could indicate humble beginnings, for instance. Thanks for the comment!

      Catie: Some regions have “flavors” of their own and others are a bit more bland. I’d say you are blessed to live in Texas where the food culture is so well-developed. The culture of humanity literally grew out of the kitchen hearth 🙂

      Marie: Authenticy is a must. Even if our readers don’t know (and many will), most have access to the net and can find out where we are right or not with little difficulty. Food deepens the flavor, but only if we use it well. Good for you for serving your readers with special treats 😀

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  6. Very fun post–great way to review the food timeline. I love to cook, and love to try new flavors. I think that’s one of the best parts of life, experiencing all the tastes out there in the big, wide world.

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Angela: Agreed, I love trying out new foods and tastes, although I am not a world-class cook by any means. Variety is the spice of life and food is the tastiest spice.

      Cat: Napping 48% of the time after eating would be okay 🙂

      Thanks for the comments 🙂

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  8. catwoods says:

    What’s wrong with eating and digesting 48% of the day? : )

    Thanks for a great perspective on something so simple.

  9. Jess Witkins says:

    What Catie said is true, when writing a historical book it is good to know about the food. When I read the author’s note for Pope Joan, she talked about learning that blue cheese became popular at that time period, and so one of the characters that helps Joan out is a cheese maker and shares blue cheese with her. Fun quirks like that in books are always fascinating.

    This post made me think of Like Water For Chocolate, a book with recipes infused in it. That book really plays on the emotions food can have. Great read to exemplify your writing ideas.

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Jess: Absolutely! I love when a writer incorporates food in an interesting way. Think of Clive Owen in the movie “Shoot Em Up”, always eating carrots and he has incredible aim (good eyesight). Thanks for the book recommendations 🙂

      Amber: Glad to see you and extra-glad you enjoyed the post 😀

      Alica: Right with you. I would not want to experience the pre-fire days or the early days of cooking. Imagine the “experimental meals”.

      Marcia: Good point. Using the wrong food would be similar to having a character pull out a cell phone or access the net in a story set in the real world 1920’s. But hey, at least his Porsche always wins in drag races.

      Sonia: Seasoning food is early. Although we are talking salts and local herbs. Barbeque dates back to at least the mid-1600’s although the sauces are the key to a good BBQ and those tend to blossom out from chef to local to region (and beyond). Enjoy Dexter is Delicious, sounds like a tasty read 🙂

  10. Amber West says:

    I have a great love for cooking, so food makes it appearance in my stories as well. Loved this post! 🙂

  11. Really grateful for my oven and fridge right now

  12. Marcia says:

    Loving history, I especially love the history of food and cooking! Authenticity of information, like foods, in a novel is so important. Who wants to look too lazy for a little research in the eyes of the reader? That would be a great way to sabotage your writing career. Very cool stuff, Gene, as usual!

  13. So cool! As usual. I had no idea cheesecake was so old. Nifty. And I love the part about industrial sabotage and the history of coffee. I love me a good cuppa joe. Now I know who to thank. 😀

    I’m reading Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter is Delicious right now. Brings a whole new (or is it old) meaning to a big bbq. LOL

  14. It’s no wonder that raw food diet experiment made me feel like I was constantly chewing while always hungry. 🙂 I gave up on the diet of course. I’m back to the evil ways of cooking.

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Jessica: Ew, not sure I would want to do raw food unless it was fruit or veggies. Meat would be very hard and in the end we spend more energy trying to eat it then we get from it. Cooking is the smart way to go 🙂

  15. Hi – as always, a thoroughly enjoyable post! And gives due perspective to the ‘stone age’ diet. Certainly it looks very much as if modern humans are, in part, a product of fire and cooking – implying some biochemical adaptation over c1.9 my as well as gross anatomical changes such as reduced jaw size. And, as you point out, the social interactions (to me, essential ‘human condition’ stuff).

    When it comes to food-as-anachronism, I wonder if there’s also another dimension. Social mobility. Think oysters. In the nineteenth century they were for the poor – impoverished Londoners collected them off the Thames. That attitude came out to the colonies. I’ve published c1865 era New Zealand colonial oyster-and-biscuit recipes in some of my history books. But by the end of the First World War at the latest they were a delicacy – so much so that taking ‘Bluff Oysters’ 700 km to the Prime Minister became one of the PR stunts pulled during the first attempt to fly the length of New Zealand by air.

    All good stuff – looking forward to next Wednesday.

    Matthew Wright

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Matthew: Fire, followed by Cooking, is without a doubt one of the keys to the development of social interaction for our species. Foodies are like priests of the revolution that continues on today.

      Susie: Agreed, it is so easy to fact check in this era that taking the minute will save you hours of reader grief, when they check for us.

      Jennie & Tiffany: Thanks 🙂

      Lynn: Food is central to many stories. Starvation is a Life or Death event, poisoned food, contaminated food, even too much food (either of the wrong kind or death by gluttony) is a bad thing.

      Jane: LOL! Yes, please blame it on the bloggers. Let’s us know we are making an “impact” on our readers 🙂

      Kerry: It seems to have started in the Middle East. Possibly in Egypt with the Falafel. No exact point of origin (or what the first thing was) is known as far as I can tell.

  16. susielindau says:

    You make a great point about the accuracy of foods and what would have been available at any given period in time. I have questioned some of the books authenticity on this subject and now that I have google and Wikapedia at my disposal, I’ll look up the accuracy of their feasts.

    You have dished up some little known facts on this week’s dig!

    PS Thank you Baba Budan!!

  17. Jennie B says:

    This post makes me hungry especially for lobster.

  18. Wow, would you believe that I never really considered time appropriate cooking and/or foods in my writing? As always, GREAT post. 🙂

  19. lynnkelleyauthor says:

    You never cease to come up with amazing topics in your Designing from Bones posts. I love learning about all this stuff – so darn interesting. I love mushrooms. Nice to know they’ve been appreciated all this time! And food does play an important part in our stories. Look at The Hunger Games and how much was covered in that trilogy about food and hunting and survival. And same with The Good Earth. Both deal with hunger and survival and they’re my two favorite books.

    In my YA WIP, my MC deals with a very embarrassing moment when her first boyfriend, cutest guy she’s ever seen, takes her to his family’s Italian restaurant and his mother serves the MC a plate of pasta and meatballs. While chewing the meatball, MC discovers a hair in it and not only has to hide her gag reflex, but she has to act like it’s tasty! That was a fun scene to write and tells a lot about the MC’s personality! Haha!

    You’re so right about the need to do our research for historical pieces, too. Right now I’m getting familiar with food in the late 1700s in New England and ships in the Carribean. Gotta get the facts straight. What a fun post. Can’t wait to see what’s waiting for us in your next Designing from Bones!

  20. kerrymeacham says:

    Can you tell me when the first deep fried foods were made? 😉 Great post ROWbro.

  21. Jane Sadek says:

    I woke up at 2:30 this morning and couldn’t get back to sleep. I decided that since I was awake, I shouldn’t waste the time, so I decided to catch up on my blog reading. One blogger was whining because she’s on a diet and now you’re talking about the history of food. Jenny Craig is going to be mad at me if I end up raiding the refrigerator, but I’m going to tell her the bloggers made me do it!

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  24. Piper Bayard says:

    Great post, Gene. Thank you for your research. You have hit on something so important. Food is such a primal need, and it tells us so much about the setting and the characters.

    I think my favorite use of food in a story is one where the wife brained the husband with a frozen leg of lamb and then roasted it up to feed to the detectives who came to investigate. Funny. They never did find the murder weapon. It was a short story. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the name.

    I’m bookmarking this blog to my Writing Craft file.

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Food is indeed a primal need and at times the focus of our primal drives, such as with the leg of lamb (which had me smiling and laughing).

      Two stories for you. First, from life. I had two friends in my twenties that got married. Their first argument was over how to prepare a turkey. They ended up throwing it around their apartment at each other until she knocked him unconscious. Imagine explaining that to the EMT’s.

      Second, from reading at my day job. A women was about to lose her house to her cheating husband. She spent her final weekend moving her things out and then sat down to a big dinner of shrimp. Hundreds of them. When she was done she stuffed the shrimp shells into the curtain rods and then left. The cheater and his new wife moved in and were met by an unpleasant smell that they couldn’t get rid of. It haunted them until they finally put the house up for sale and the original wife bought it back. Love justice.

      Thanks for the compliment and the bookmark 🙂

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  27. Piper Bayard says:

    Lmao. Gene, those are such funny anecdotes. Reminds me that in our first couple of years together, my husband and I had one of the worst arguments of our two decade relationship. It was over whether you put the mayonnaise on the ham or on the bread when making a sandwich. While I didn’t knock him unconscious with the ham, I certainly wanted to. I’m sure he would say the same. It took him twelve years to admit it, but at some point in time, he became a mayonnaise-on-the-bread convert. 🙂

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